The three daughters of the Russian-born, Romanov Grand Duchess Helen (Ellen) and her husband Prince Nicholas of Greece and Denmark were regarded as the most beautiful and sophisticated in Europe. Marina, Elizabeth and Olga were also extremely close, having been raised together by their beloved, brusque English nurse or ‘nurnie’, Miss Kate Fox, at the Nicholas Palace in Athens, as well as at the Greek royal family’s country retreat at Tatoi, in the wooded foothills of Mount Parnitha. The Princesses made frequent trips to England, where they spent the summer months living in simple hotels or Norland hostels at Westgate-on-Sea or Bognor. Yet, the trio were equally at home amongst the grandeur of the Imperial court in St Petersburg, where their powerful maternal grandmother, Grand Duchess Vladimir, showered them with exquisite gifts and instilled in them a deep understanding of their Imperial Romanov heritage.
The best-known (and youngest) of the trio was Princess Marina. In November 1934, she had made a highly desirable marriage to Prince George, Duke of Kent (the youngest son of Britain’s King George V). The middle sister, Princess Elizabeth, is a more obscure figure. She married a wealthy Bavarian aristocrat (and nephew of Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians), Count Carl Theodor of Toerring-Jettenbach and settled in Munich. However, it was the eldest sister, Princess Olga, who would hold the highest rank as the wife and Consort of the Prince Regent (Paul) of Yugoslavia.
Despite their impeccable royal credentials, the sisters were actually more interested in a ‘cosy’ life en famille, and whenever their individual official or domestic duties permitted, they would meet up in London, Munich, Belgrade or Slovenia for a grand family get- together. When all else failed, long and detailed letters (chiefly concerning domestic matters or news of extended family) flew between England, Bavaria and Yugoslavia on a weekly basis. Grand Duchess Helen encouraged these strong inter-family bonds from her homes in Paris and Athens.
In late 1935, Paul and Olga had purchased a large Slovenian castle at Brdo which was large enough to accommodate all of the extended family for visits throughout August and into late September. The emphasis was firmly on fun: Games of tennis were interspersed with riding, swimming, film shows, charades and fishing trips, as well as excursions to the Slovene capital, Ljubljana. On occasion, several members of the party might travel further afield to enjoy a relaxing cruise down Croatia’s Dalmatian coast. When all else failed, there was always the joy of the popular card game, Lexicon.
However, as early as September 1938, the shadow of war threatened this almost idyllic family existence. All the extended family happened to be staying at the Toerring’s country home, Frauenbuhl Castle at Winhöring when, during a rally in Nuremberg, the German leader, Hitler, denounced Czechoslovakia as a ‘fraudulent state’, focused on subduing the German-speaking minority in the Sudetenland. The Führer also encouraged the Sudeten Germans to demand union with Germany and even offered to provide them with military assistance. Anticipating a deterioration in the European political situation, the Duke and Duchess of Kent returned to England, with heavy hearts, on 14th September. Next day, the Prince Regent and Princess Olga journeyed home to Brdo. Meanwhile, Count Toerring, being of military age, joined the Gebirgsjäger (mountain troops) and was called up to the Czech frontier, leaving his anxious wife to mind their two young children. War was temporarily averted following peace negotiations which resulted in the Munich Agreement of 30 September signed by Hitler, Neville Chamberlain (the British Prime Minister), Mussolini and the French Premier Edouard Daladier. However, Czechoslovakia paid a heavy price as the accord permitted the annexation of the Sudetenland into the Third Reich. Gallingly, the Czechoslovak government was neither invited nor consulted over the matter.
As 1938 drew to a close, Princess Olga feared for her husband’s safety as it was no secret that the Prince Regent was a prime target for terrorists as he sought to thrash out an agreement between the Roman Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs. She was cheered by a visit from Marina in February 1939. However, within weeks of the Duchess of Kent’s return to England, German forces invaded the remainder of Czechoslovakia, in direct contravention of the Munich Agreement. Suddenly, it seemed to the British government that Hitler was intent on dominating Europe and Britain’s policy of appeasement was now abandoned. As it appeared likely that Poland would be the Fuhrer’s next target, on 31 March, Neville Chamberlain informed the House of Commons that ‘in the event of any action which clearly threatened Polish independence’ the British government would ‘feel bound.. to lend the Polish Government all support in their power’.
On Good Friday, 7 April, Italy invaded Yugoslavia’s southern neighbour of Albania. This troubled Olga greatly as it put extra pressure on the Prince Regent and served to underline that much of the weight of Yugoslavia’s uncertain future rested squarely on his shoulders. Princess Elizabeth and Count Toerring happened to be spending Easter in England with Marina and the Duke of Kent at their country home, Coppins. Prince George’s correspondence with Prince Paul indicates that there was a frank exchange of (often differing) views on the situation in Europe between the couples.
However, the Duke of Kent and Marina were mostly focused on preparing for their departure to Australia where Prince George was due to take up an appointment as the Dominion’s Governor-General. Elizabeth and Olga were both in despair at the thought of their youngest sibling moving to the other side of the world for a period of up to five years. Fortunately, Olga was distracted by her own official duties, as she and the Prince Regent were due to make State visits to Italy and Germany in May and June respectively. The visit to Berlin provided Olga and her sister Elizabeth with the chance of several brief reunions at the Bellevue Palace, amid a busy week of official engagements.
In early July, it was the turn of Marina and the Duke of Kent to greet Olga and Paul, when they arrived on a visit to London. The stay was a more relaxed family affair, despite the Yugoslav royals being quartered at Buckingham Palace. While the Prince Regent had talks with government ministers, Olga-keenly aware that her sister would be departing in only a few months for Canberra-spent quality time with Marina at the Kent’s home in Belgrave Square. She and Paul also managed a weekend trip down to Coppins.
In early August, Olga and Paul returned to Bled for what remained of the summer; Grand Duchess Helen was already in residence and the house party was soon completed by the arrival of the Kents and the Toerrings. It so happened that Prince Albrecht of Bavaria was a fellow guest. Albrecht was strongly opposed to Hitler and his National Socialist Party and was currently employed by Prince Paul to run his shoots at Petrovčić and Belje. Unsurprisingly, the atmosphere was somewhat strained for if Britain and Germany went to war, as seemed increasingly likely given Chamberlain’s guarantee, the Kents and Toerrings would, technically speaking, be enemies. Since Yugoslavia intended to remain neutral, Olga would be Marina and Elizabeth’s mutual point of contact.
Within a few weeks the situation deteriorated considerably: On 22 August, it was confirmed that Germany and Russia had signed a non-aggression pact. The Treaty had a secret protocol appended to it which divided eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence and signalled the green light for further German advances, including into Poland. Aware of the implications, both the Duke of Kent and Count Toerring left Brdo for their respective homelands as soon as they received the news. Marina remained in Slovenia until the end of August before departing by train for London.
On 1 September 1939 Germany invaded Poland and Elizabeth Toerring immediately left for Munich. On 3 September, in line with the guarantees it had earlier given to the Polish government, Great Britain declared war on Germany. Olga was ‘stunned’ by this development realising all too well the implications for Marina and Elizabeth. Count Toerring had already been called up to the western front and Prince George-his move to Australia now put on hold-was serving in the Royal Navy at the Admiralty in London. To exacerbate matters, Princess Olga’s sons Nicholas and Alexander were currently attending school in England, a place which now seemed increasingly far off as telephone communications with Yugoslavia were suspended.
Suddenly, the sisters’ life of privilege was gone. In Bavaria, Princess Elizabeth had taken to riding a bike as petrol was rationed, while Princess Olga had been appointed President of the Yugoslav Red Cross. Olga and Elizabeth had originally been able to communicate by telephone (with a German censor listening in), but this facility was withdrawn in late October. Although letters could still be sent (in Olga and Marina’s case via the official diplomatic bag) the process was slow and tedious; there were also limits as to what could safely be committed to paper. In England, Marina had joined the Navy as Commandant of the Women’s Royal Naval Service-‘the Wrens’-and was soon undertaking tours of inspection throughout England. On occasion, she travelled to Scotland to join the Duke of Kent who had been transferred to Admiralty House in North Queensferry. This meant that she was sometimes separated from her young children, Edward and Alexandra, who, with Coppins closed-up and the London house vacated, often spent time staying with their paternal grandmother, Queen Mary, at Badminton.
In early November, Princess Elizabeth and her children Hans Veit and Helen arrived in Belgrade. The main reason for her visit was that food was increasingly scarce in Bavaria. However, the erratic political climate must have been another factor. Countess Toerring feared for her husband’s welfare, particularly when she learned that there were random, ‘new wholesale arrests’ following an assassination attempt on Hitler’s life in Munich’s Bürgerbräukelle. Yet, as 1939 drew to close, the sister’s remained resolute. Elizabeth and her children returned to Bavaria, in early December, to be with Count Toerring (who had now been released from active duty), while Olga sought to try and provide some Festive cheer in Belgrade for King Peter (whose mother, Queen Dowager Marie, now lived in England with her younger sons Andy and Tommy), her three-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, and the Prince Regent. Meanwhile, Marina busied herself with organising accommodation for the Christmas school holiday period, in Cambridge, for Olga’s sons and Miss Fox. She later visited the trio to help them celebrate the Festive Season.
As 1940 dawned, Olga noted that, ‘The future looks dark I must admit- but I know the light is there behind it all the time.’ Yet, in the years ahead, all of the sisters would face terrible challenges, which would test them-and their close bond-to the limit.